A few days ago I enjoyed the first episode of a wonderful new documentary series on BBC2 called ‘Rise of the Continents‘. It’s hosted by geologist Professor Iain Stewart – a highly engaging and skillful presenter. The programme sets out to explain the geological formation of Earth’s great continents from the ancient mega-continent of Pangaea, and the immense subterranean forces in the Earth’s core that drive geological change over aeons.
Geology, like other sciences, has the potential to be televisually rather dry. However, ‘Rise of the Continents’ uses clever animated graphics to add context and immediacy to the landscapes that Stewart visits. The climactic revelation of the opening programme was the presence of a massive ‘mantle plume‘ beneath the Great Rift Valley in North East Africa – a phenomenon that would eventually rip the ancient landmass apart.
Mantle plumes are colossal protrusions of magma, extending from the Earth’s core towards the upper mantle and the crust. These plumes, explained Stewart, exerted huge volcanic pressure in surface “hot spots” which eventually thin and break the crust – tearing the continent into new land formations. The programme ended with Stewart drawing lines on a map with black marker to illustrate potential rupture points in the African landmass.
Epic stuff, and great factual TV. I have no knowledge of geology, so I watched as an enthusiastic amateur – thrilled by the grandeur, and the mind-boggling facts imparted with calm assurance by the professor.
Did I say facts? Aah…
Yesterday I was fascinated to spy a little tweet nestling in my timeline which linked to an article on the Live Science website entitled “Do Mantle Plumes Exist?” It described a French/German research project which is attempting to verify a suspected plume beneath the Indian Ocean using seismometers. A particular passage in the article caught my eye:-
However, more than 40 years after mantle plumes were first proposed, scientists are debating whether they actually exist. For example, it remains hotly debated whether and how mantle plumes can remain active and stationary for more than 100 million years.
Hotly debated? Only a few days before, I had watched the TV, rapt, as a geology professor informed the viewing
masses about the mantle plumes beneath their feet. There was much talk about hot magma – but not a single word about hot debate over their existence. The narrative of the programme didn’t once mention uncertainty over the plume theory, and no other expert appeared in the hour to put another point of view. I may know nothing about geology, but that sounds to me like a theory that is still a fair way from being regarded as settled fact within the scientific community.
I feel this raises interesting issues about disclosure and transparency in the communication of science, which has implications for the wider relationship between science and society in a century of technoscientific challenges such as climate, food supply, and global pandemic.
The makers of this series have, I believe, chosen to construct a coherent singular narrative about geology from the work of a single eminent scientist. This makes for a much more vibrant story arc, allowing for a personally-authored vision to shine through, and doesn’t get bogged down in arguments between competing talking heads. TV documentary seems increasingly to favour this approach (see Cox and Attenborough), and I for one love to see a strong argument well presented on the small screen.
The trouble comes, I think, if TV science narrative presents aspects of science as ‘settled knowledge’ when it clearly isn’t. Scientists are the first people to remind the public that uncertainty is a central feature of scientific practice. It is an ongoing process. Yet there are central tenets of science that achieve a wide consensus of support and evidence, and become de-facto knowledge. Core beliefs, if you will. Gravity is an obvious one. Climate change is another. Yet the boundary between ‘settled knowledge’ and ‘hot debate’ is not always an easy one to draw. Things aren’t helped, I feel, when science practitioners on TV are complicit in editorial decisions that obscure key uncertainties – while debate on these issues continues in private. Of course, a key element in good communication is the distillation of dense scientific detail into a coherent, clear explanation. We don’t need all the raw data! But distillation is very different from omission of substantial counter-opinion. It’s a bit rich, in my view, to blame the public for not understanding uncertainties in science, if scientists themselves play a part in concealing such uncertainty when communicating science to publics.
This double-standard in the communication of scientific uncertainty to publics would seem to have a long history. Science historian Imogen Clarke recently wrote a fascinating blog post about physicist James Jeans who, in the 1930s, wrote a popular science book extolling the importance and resilience of classic Newtonian theory. At the very same time, however, Jeans was using a professional journal to dismiss these theories as a dead end – superceded by new quantum principles. According to Clarke, Jeans was happy to overturn Newton’s work within science, whilst simultaneously obscuring this upheaval from the public. This was done, she believed, to maintain a status-quo view of physics as a stable science built ‘on the shoulders of giants’ - and to preserve the iconic reputation of Isaac Newton as a purveyor of core knowledge. It was the stage management of disputed knowledge to publics, presented as reliable facts in order to preserve the wider reputation of a scientific discipline.
A confident, coherent narrative in communication can be far more compelling than an equivocal exposition of different opinions. As a species, we are seduced by stories of progress and heroic certainty. Yet there is a crucial tension between the power of science narrated as certainty, and the truth of science exposed as messy, disputed and debated. Mantle plumes rising from the Earth’s core may well be shown to be fact by subsequent study. But who makes the decision about who to tell, and who to keep in the dark, when it comes to current scientific uncertainty?
Perhaps more importantly: how will the public trust crucial scientific consensus on global issues if disputed science, wilfully communicated to publics as core knowledge by scientists, is later shown to be built on shaky ground?